Into the Dark

Vanessa Riley’s problem wasn’t that she fell in love with idiots – it was that she fell in love with everybody. She only needed to talk to somebody for ten minutes to fall irrevocably head over heels. No wonder that the morons got to her; they were the ones that made the moves, after all. And to make things worse, she herself was not your average girl-next-door – nor was her family the most average of families. This fact, without a fault, tended to secure her the less-than-average moronic suitors as well.

The first one, not counting all the cute elementary school flings littering her back story like embarrassing piles of unicorn poop, had been a vampire. She had been fourteen years old, mesmerized by the writings of a certain Mrs. Rice and consequently swiped right off her feet by his charm, bottomless eyes and knowing, poetic voice as he spoke her name. It was an intense, crimson and incredibly sexy affair. She had given him her overrated virginity and lots and lots of blood. He had given her almost as much in return and promised to take her “into the night”, as he had so eloquently put it. The romance ended almost as swiftly as it had begun, with her mother finding out and chopping his head off with a rusty shovel – it being all that had been readily at hand in the heat of the moment.

Turned out, though, that he had a family of his own. Fierce old things that didn’t take lightly the death – much less murder – of one of theirs. The fact that his beheading, by some, was unfortunately interpreted as an escalation of the age old cold war between vampires and mages didn’t exactly make things better. The final price and outcome of this seemingly innocent high school romance thus became an increased enmity between two up until now passively warring factions, the violent death of her mother and the turning, as it was likewise eloquently termed, of her own twin sister. They haven’t spoken much since then.

After that she lived with her father for a time, long enough to finish high school. He and her late mother had already been divorced for some time before her death. However, due to him priding himself with having a werewolf somewhere far back in his lineage, nobody had deemed it necessary to intervene in the name of secrecy when their relationship ended. What this intervention would have meant, though, Vanessa didn’t learn until later – and then it was the hard way.

What she did learn at this time, however, was the complete, merciless and entirely uncensored truth about her unusual family tree. Vanessa had already been made aware of her mother’s abilities, that she had been a magician of some renown and that Vanessa herself was expected to someday develop some degree of powers of her own. She hadn’t been aware, though, of the fact that her mother’s family could trace their lineage as far back as ancient Egypt, and that as good as every generation up until now had sported their share of supernatural creatures. Those who never displayed any magical abilities of their own were quickly swept up by the vampires, changelings and ritualists surrounding the family at all times. Thus they had made themselves a name over the millennia, and thus the prospects of the normal life Vanessa Riley had always hoped for instantly seemed farther away than ever. But time had passed and Vanessa had made due and eventually learned to cope with the new state of her world.

Her second boyfriend, not counting all the high school one nighters littering her teens like secretly thrilling but forbidden cigarette buds, had been a magician himself. She had been almost eighteen and had fallen head over heels before his cunning eyes, sly smile and somewhat rough ways. Being finally together with someone who was actually allowed to know her family’s deepest secrets had been a great relief. Up until then none of her friends or partners – save for that one who “got away” – had been residents of the proverbial world of darkness that her own family of secret mages, werewolves and general misfits were a part of.

She could talk to him about all the things that confused and frightened her, and the fact that he was just two years her senior sat really well with her father. They shared one intense summer and then he went to prison. Not your usual, mundane prison, mind you. Rather it was the kind of prison where mages are sent if they, gods forbid, meddle with things more dark and dangerous than what is considered sound, safe and sane by the local coven leaders. The people who came for him made sure to perform thorough interrogations of Vanessa as well, but soon lost interest when it became clear that she hadn’t even awakened to her powers yet. Without them, it was impossible for her to have broken any arcane laws serious enough for them to care. She later learned that he had been exiled from the city, but by then she had already moved on.

Vanessa Riley’s third real boyfriend had actually been an ordinary, human guy. He was the same age as her and they met by chance through a language class they both took after finishing senior high. She was nineteen years old and had only three months earlier discovered that she could see people’s auras and read their minds. Her father had been delighted hearing about her powers, but also somewhat saddened. He had told her that before long the rest of the family would take interest in her and that she then might have to move on with her life – whether she wanted it or not. That this moving on would occur sooner rather than later, and that it would rip open the seams of a world she already believed entirely upside down, was nothing he had told her, though.

The ordinary guy’s name was Brian and when she was with him Vanessa could almost allow herself to believe in a normal every day life where the most groundbreaking thing that could happen would be the neighbours coming by for a cup of sugar. She stayed over at his place more and more frequently and was soon endowed with an empty drawer in one of his closets. They talked about enrolling to the same college, buying a car and skipping town, renting a flat and moving in together and many other things. It all felt so serious that one late and drunken night, as they lay gazing at the stars out on Brian’s balcony, Vanessa decided to tell him everything.

They were both drunk and when she began talking about telepathy, auras and mind control his first reaction was to laugh uncontrollably. She couldn’t help but to laugh as well, but when she realized that he thought the whole thing was a joke she stopped.

This is real”, she said. “I’m not fooling around.” She sat up and stared at him and eventually he stopped laughing as well – at least long enough to draw breath.

Okay, I hear you.” He had to fight back another fit of laughter before continuing. “So you can read minds and make people do stuff. And why haven’t I noticed this before?”

She sighed impatiently. “Because it’s a secret and I was afraid you would freak out. Besides, I learned to do these things only recently.”

At this he finally stopped laughing and managed a somewhat serious look. “Alright, babe. Show me. What am I thinking about?”

Me. You’re thinking about me.”

Well, okay, but that one was easy. What about now?”

You’re still thinking about me, stupid. But without clothes now. You’re also thinking about fish for some reason. Kinky.”

This made him pause, but only for a moment. “I don’t know how you did that, but come on babe, just admit that this is a joke so I can kiss you already.”

But it isn’t –” He reached for her and started pulling her closer, seemingly already haven dismissed the subject as a drunken prank.

She panicked. She had just opened herself up to him like she had never dared before, and here he was, on the edge of joking it all away. “Stop”, she said – and he did. Way to quickly.

Brian stared at her, frozen at an arm’s length’s distance. The terror in his eyes spoke for itself. “What the hell did you do?”

An icy hand gripped her spine. What did I do? What have I done? “I’m… I’m sorry, Brian. I –”

But he had already gotten to his feet and quickly backed away from her. “Don’t”, he said. “I don’t know what you did but I… I can’t…” He backed into the darkness of the apartment. She tried to follow but he held up both hands and shook his head violently. “No, please. Just don’t. I need to…” And with that he turned his back on her and fled out the door.

She stood in his dark living room for several seconds, just listening in shocked silence as his echoing footsteps disappeared down the stairwell and were finally cut off by the sharp sound of the main entrance closing far below. Not until then did she sink to the floor, collapsing in a sobbing pile and feeling the tears stream down her face.

They found Brian’s body the next day. She had fallen asleep on the floor of his apartment and did not awaken until she got the call. The policeman on the other end had gotten her number from her father and was empathetic but matter-of-fact when he told her that Brian was dead. He had been found in a park close to his home, lying under a bush with his neck broken. The police wanted to talk to her in person as soon as possible, seeing as she was possibly one of the last people who had seen him alive.

Vanessa was numb when the call ended and almost couldn’t bring herself to answering when her father called a few seconds later. He came to pick her up and the subsequent ride over to the police station was an eerily silent one. The investigators asked her about the night before, what they had done and why he had left home. She told them that they had fought over some trivial thing – couldn’t very well tell them the truth. They asked her many questions but in the end seemed to accept that she didn’t know anything about his potential enemies, debts or addictions.

On their way home in the car that evening her father tried his best to check on her, console her or at least make her talk. He failed on all three points. As they entered the driveway she still hadn’t spoken a word that wasn’t in reply to a direct question. She was in shock and walked through fog on broken glass. They walked into the house and her father went to the kitchen to make her some chamomile tea. Then he froze on the threshold. When Vanessa caught up with him and saw Her, the woman sitting on the couch, she wasn’t even surprised. She had never seen this woman before and still she knew who she was.

“Neferthali”, she said tonelessly. She didn’t have any tones left.

The woman nodded and rose. “It’s time”, she said and strode over to them, her crimson silk dress flowing behind her as she moved. Vanessa thought that her long raven hair reflected the darkness outside the windows.

“You, you can’t –” Vanessa’s father stuttered as he tried to speak.

“Yes, Jim”, the tall woman said. “I’m taking your daughter. It’s clear as day that you can’t handle her.”

And with that she grabbed Vanessa’s hand and walked her back towards the door. Vanessa tried to turn, to seek her father’s eyes, but Neferthali stopped and grabbed her chin. “You stupid girl, you don’t understand anything, do you? Running around and telling sleepers about the Family and all. Obviously you can’t even handle yourself.”

Her grip was firm as rock and Vanessa could do nothing but stare into those deep, dark eyes that had seen civilizations rise and fall. She shivered involuntarily. “I didn’t tell him about the Family”, she said, tears welling up in her eyes. Tears of shame that she didn’t herself know the origin of.

“No, but you would have”, the woman said. “It always starts this way, with a stupid little girl telling an almost as stupid boy about magic. The rest is history. That’s how it started with your mother and father, and that’s how it started for your mother’s parents before her. Were it not for your father’s animalistic heritage, I would gladly have killed him as well when that sad relationship ended. Yes, Jim”, she said and turned her head halfway towards Vanessa’s father for a split second. “That’s the truth and you know it.”

Vanessa’s father didn’t say anything, but Vanessa could see from the corner of her eye that he was gripping the door frame tightly and stared intently at them. She herself snapped out of her frozen state for a moment when Nerferthali took her ancient eyes of her.

“What… do you mean ‘as well’?”, she whispered.

Neferthali met her eyes again, absolute controlled calm emanating from her eyes. “Like I killed your sleeper boy last night, of course”, she said. No malice in her voice, no sadistic pleasure. Just coldly, calmly establishing a fact.

“You, you killed Brian?” Vanessa felt her legs go weak and her voice tremble as she uttered the terrible words. “You killed him. You.”

Neferthali nodded. “I did. He was leaving you and he knew too much. I had to.”

Vanessa felt the tears break forth again and could do, would do, nothing to prevent it. “He wasn’t leaving me. We would have worked it out. He would have come back, just needed… He just needed some time, that’s all.”

The ancient woman sighed – more as a rhetoric gesture than because she needed the air. “Maybe he would have. But he would have left again, he was a lost cause. Not made for this kind of darkness. You know this, Vanessa. You always did. And still you told him. This makes you the real killer, not me. I’m just protecting the family, like I have always done. I only wish your mother would have let me take you sooner. That would probably have left her alive to one day see you learn from your mistakes.”

So many thoughts, so many disturbing, provoking, heartbreaking concepts. Brian’s death her fault. Her mother’s murder and her sister’s turning just as much. Learn from my mistakes… Yes, she thought. Maybe they were all because of me. And the prospect broke her, pulled her apart with such force that she couldn’t even try to resist it. She would have fallen to the floor if her vampire godmother had let her. She who had, according to the family myths, guarded over her progeny for thousands and thousands of years.

Neferthali picked her up, cradled her in her cold, hard arms like a baby and carried her out through the door. Vanessa shook uncontrollably and her only anchor to sanity then and there was the vampire singing softly to her in a language lost to all but the dead and forgotten gods of yore.

And behind them inside the house her father let out a roaring bellow that was not of a human throat, but still dared do nothing to save his last living daughter from this creature older than modern time itself.

“His first change, finally”, Neferthali mused smilingly as she carried her young ward away. But by then Vanessa Riley had stopped listening to anything but blind panic a long time ago. And thus she was carried off into a night more dark and dangerous than what any coven leader, however hardened, would consider sound, safe and sane.

And that was only the beginning.


You can find part II of the story about Vanessa Riley here.

Chris Smedbakken 2017-05-24

River Ghost

This is an old text i wrote back in 2008. I still like the concept of the story, and I’m happy to see that my grammar wasn’t completely off even back then. But if I were to rewrite it today, I would make a lot of changes. I’d definitely make it shorter, and less pompous. I’d love to hear your opinion – is the story worth rewriting?


There are and always will be soul collectors in this world.

A long time ago, in the years when your great-grandmother was young, there lived in a small village near the great forest a young man with his mind full of dreams. In the year of this story’s place taking, the summer was as warm, green and beautiful as a summer could ever be dreamt to be, and the village enjoyed itself accordingly. Festivities were being held almost once a week at the dancing place in the middle of the forest, where the swirling river met the lake.

The joyful mood inspired this specific young man – a violin player – to propose to the object of his lifelong affection. The girl accepted gladly, and for many weeks they met and danced together at the gatherings in the forest.

Tradition had it that a couple may not undertake the wandering to these gatherings together until they were wedded, and thus this young man walked alone or together with his friends to the festivities each week, to meet his future bride at the scene of the dancing. The young two were very happy and everyone looked forward to the upcoming wedding.

But fate wanted it otherwise. One evening, when the air was even more pleasantly warm than usual and the birds sang clearer than ever in the trees, the young man happened to walk on his own to the gathering. He was late and all his friends had gone before him. When he got to the part of the road where the forest trail crossed a whirling stream by means of a wooden bridge, he suddenly though he heard singing from the water.

Confused, he leaned against the rail to gaze down into the foamy depths, and was amazed to find the most beautiful creature he ever saw gazing back at him. Large black eyes framed by flowing hair the color of water, she had the body of a fragile water lily but radiated with an inner strength that seemed to contain the ferocity of the ocean itself. The river ghost rose from her flowing containment and placed herself upon a rock in the stream, where from she sang to him.

His friends came back to look for him when dark crept up from the hills and the shadows cast by the trees began to fade into the surrounding gloom. Lanterns were carried along the path, and they were greatly relieved to find him uninjured on the wooden bridge crossing the stream. He hastily lowered his violin, strings still reverberating from previously played notes, and looked to the ground, a strange sort of shame suddenly making him want to flee.

They did not notice this, however, and laughingly scorned him for his lazy nature and heartily prodded him along back to the dancing. He followed without a word, and when he cast one last, longing glimpse over his shoulder upon stepping off the wooden bridge, the gentle river ghost of a woman was gone.

He left his heart in the stream that night, however.

His friends noticed that something was amiss with their companion – or maybe “amiss” is not the right word for it; he seemed suddenly more colorful, more joyful and more keen to practice his music whenever there was time for it. And none of these changes would have been interpreted as negative, had they been described to an outsider. But his closest ones wondered.

He had never been one to show his emotions very openly, and even the promise of a coming wedding between himself and the girl he had coveted for as long as he could remember had not sent him flying high like this. They settled, though, for the conclusion that this sudden joyousness was due to a delayed insight about what was to come.

The young man himself did not tell anyone about his nightly encounter – or encounters maybe is a better word, since this was not the last time he met with the watery phantom by the river stream. In fact, he tended to walk alone to the dancing quite frequently after that first evening, and it was not rare for him to be absent from these gatherings altogether thenceforth.

His bride-to-be was a little worried at this, but his friends calmed her by saying that he had much to think about and tend to before the wedding. And although they themselves did not fully believe this explanation, she left it at that and continued with her own eager preparations as tradition saw suitable and without further inquiry.

And so the nights, weeks and months went by quietly in the little village. When the people heard soft violin tunes coming from the forest, they simply took it as the highly fitting and not at all unusual wanderings and contemplations of a young man soon to give up his naïve life in boyish freedom for something new and much bigger. In reality, he was not playing for himself at all.

The river ghost was faithful to him and waited for him in silence on the rock in the water whenever he chose to show up – but always in moonlight. It was as if her voice would not carry in the cruel heat of the daylight sun, and since she appeared to be half siren, half serenade, she could not take form where her singing would not be heard. Every time he came, he played his violin and she sang with it.

No thought of his did go to the poor girl who awaited their forthcoming wedding with anticipation, as all his mind was on the music he and the water made together. The others stopped expecting him at the dances after a while, but this did not bother him at all. He came up with new tunes – they heard it – and he slept with a new kind of peace at night. But always after returning from the forest stream.

One thing troubled his mind though, namely the nature of the watery romance. Their music was beautiful, but he realized pretty soon that she could not leave the water and come to him. He tried once, twice, even thrice to wade out into the river to her – but as soon as the ripples from his movements reached the hem of her whirling silver gown, she would fade from his grasping fingers as soon as a bubble bursts on a foamy surface. This was his only sorrow during this brief time of otherwise unbroken ignorant bliss.

The wedding was nigh. On the evening of fate he wore the attire of ceremony his father had worn before him, but walking towards the ground of feast – the same as where the dances had been held all summer – he discovered the rings had been forgotten and was forced to turn back. The congregation moved along as he ran as fast as he could back to the village.

Seeing his bride dressed up in her ceremonial dress had caused him to wake from his delusions of a watery romance. Knowing that the life he would have with this girl would be possible in all the ways his brief river crush had not been, he had decided to go forth with the proceedings. This insight had reached him only the night before.

The rings in hand he did not know why he also brought his violin on a whim, but legend has it that evil fate was in the air that evening, intervening. Or maybe it was the work of forces beyond understanding.

In any case the village was understandably empty and quiet when he ran back towards the forest trail, noises being heard only from far away in the woods where the preparations were hurriedly being finished. He reached the trail and had to slow down a bit, lest he trip on any of the roots and twigs scattered everywhere on the path and get dirt all over his fine clothes.

Had he kept on running, he might have missed and passed by the little man sitting on a stub right before the bend in the road that would take him to the bridge over the stream, but he did not. And as he did not miss him, and as he, in spite of everything else, was a polite and mannerly young man, he stopped, surprised, and asked the man if he needed any help.

The young man might have still made it to the ceremony, had he been of a more suspicious nature – but he was not. And thus he did not up and run when he got an evil grin for an answer, or even when the man made his offer. He said he knew about the affection the young man held for the siren of the woods, and about the dilemma they suffered. He had the solution. He had the spell.

Should the boy accept he would, at a small cost, be able to be together with his singing shade for all time, hearing her sing and play to her every night henceforth. Time would never separate them and neither would daylight, since he would be given the ears to hear her and the eyes to see her even when day was upon the world like a ravenous fever.

Should he reject, he would be free to continue on his way and proceed with the imminent ceremony, never laying his mind upon the matter again. But he had to remember this was a one time offer. It would never be made again.

For all he knew a full year passed between them as he stood there, unable to think coherently. Then he reached forth his hand and offered it to the stranger, who smilingly accepted it in not quite a shake but a firm, long hold. Music started somewhere further down the path – the dancing had begun. But if he, somewhere in his distraught mind, still cared about that, or about the young woman who laughingly spun around in her last dance of freedom in the glade beyond the stream right then, he did not know it himself.

For at that moment, all his thoughts were fixed on the river ghost that he had all but forgotten about only minutes before. And the world spun deliriously around him as he apprehended the wonder of the situation. He would have her, he would be with her, he would play for her and hear her sing. He would never have to forget about her again. Ever.

The stranger was gone. Had he even been there? Who had? Why was he standing in the middle of the road with his violin and bow uncased?

There was music down the path, somewhere in the deep forest. Why? But it was merry, and seemed to accompany in major the beautiful minor key melody that flowed towards him from the stream further on. It was a woman’s singing. Or the ghost of a woman.

He walked down the path like a man in a dream, and did not notice he had brought the violin to his shoulder until the smooth surface of the ebony chin rest touched his skin. And he didn’t know there was such music in his mind until his fingers picked it out in harmony with the heavenly song in his ears. And then he reached the stream.

She was all the wonder he knew she would be, and somehow he could see that more clearly tonight. She was more than a specter now, more substantial. Where the moonlight touched her it did not shine through, but rather illuminated her. He lowered his pace and approached her slowly. And this is where all the love stories would have you listen to endless descriptions of the light in their eyes, the smell of the air, the sound of the night around them.

This one will not.

She beckoned him forward and he started to descend the slope down to the whirling water – all the while playing his salute to her in fast, almost madly swirling notes. He reached the span of the small bridge and got ready to enter the cold water. But one more step, and he began to feel a resistance. Moving got harder with each inch he closed in on her, and he ended up sinking down on an old stump standing beside him. Walking had gotten too hard.

He felt dizzy and blamed it on the heat of the past day, but he never ceased playing. And she kept singing, even though her voice had taken on a worried shade.

Then his arms began to feel heavy. He let them drop, and the music stopped. He let the violin rest on his knee, and thought he needed to sleep for a minute or two. Just for a short while. But then he saw the expression on her face, a look of pure terror he had not thought a phantom could express.

She reached out for him with an all too solid hand, and when he held out his own hand he gasped in surprise and horror, for now he understood why he could see her. He also understood why he could not move anymore, and what the strange man – he remembered him now – had meant with ‘a small price’.

His hand and arm was draped in vines and so, he saw when he with difficulty turned his head, was the rest of him. Of his legs there was nothing left but a strangely sculpted extension of the stump he was sitting on, and he could feel the cold creeping up his torso where this woody infection was spreading. He tried to scream; out came an inarticulate grunt. He wanted to thrash and turn, but his whole body was turning into wood.

He turned his gaze back to her, and saw that her face had settled into an expression of solemn sorrow. He saw now that she could not leave the rock in the stream any more than he could move from the wooden stub. They were both specters now. And she started singing again – a sad, dark song of drowning slowly.

She reached for him, and he reached for her. But they both knew that they would never touch, never reach quite far enough. He stopped breathing – there was no need to anymore.

His arm stiffened that way, and he never moved again. But in his mind he lifted his violin to his shoulder and played for her again, and she sang. And they have been silently playing and singing ever since.

What happened to the wedding party is not for this story to tell – maybe its tale was never told – but when the guests and villagers came walking back the path hours later, they never found him. They didn’t even notice the wooden statue until days later, and no one associated it with the lost boy. Except maybe his now lonely bride-to-be, who was found on several occasions afterwards sitting by the stream, leaned towards that strange statue, seemingly listening to some inaudible music. But she could never explain it, and as the years passed she forgot and moved on.

But if you happen to pass by that stream near the village in the forest – it may well have turned into a full scale city by now, for all I know – pause for a moment and listen. It might be that you hear faint tunes from the whirling water, and you’ll know that it is their song. He will never lift his violin from his knee again in human sight, but he will forever play to her all the same. And she will sing to him, invisible in daylight, from her rock in the middle of the stream.

Lost boy and River Ghost, together and still not, forever.

And the strange man added one more soul to his collection.